The WHO’s best estimates are currently that malaria interventions have been reduced by between 15 and 25 per cent during the pandemic.
“This is not new,” said Dr Pedro Alonso, director of the WHO Global Malaria Programme. “When we had the Ebola epidemics, we had a lot more deaths due to malaria than Ebola in the affected countries. This is a feature of emergencies.”
However, the team praised the efforts of countries and organisations working to prevent malaria, many of whom have managed to keep their programmes roughly on track despite the pandemic.
Dr Abdourahmane Diallo, chief executive of the RBM Partnership to End Malaria, said: “There has been a heroic effort to avoid the doubling of malaria deaths [that many feared during the pandemic].”
He said millions of insecticide-treated nets had still been delivered, houses sprayed, and children given preventative drugs.
But he added: “We cannot let the pandemic distract us.”
There were already worrying signs that progress on malaria had stalled, even pre-pandemic, particularly in the last few years. For example, in 2018, 411,000 people died of malaria. In 2019, it was 409,000, only slightly lower.
A lack of funding is part of the problem: last year, funding totalled $3 billion, just less than half of the $5.6bn target of the global malaria strategy.
The aim was to reduce malaria cases and mortality rates by 40 per cent compared to 2015; mortality rates have only gone down by 18 per cent and case incidence by 3 per cent since then.
The WHO’s Dr Moeti said changing mindsets to give tackling malaria the urgency that fighting the pandemic has had could make the difference.
“The child has got a fever as usual – that familiarity – that has got to change so that it becomes something of outrage that this preventable disease continues to kill almost 400,000 people every year,” she said. “If that shifts, perhaps we can see the shift of investment that will make the difference.”
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